Veterinary student Ann Lynch conducts tick-borne disease research in France

Ann Lynch, of Charlottesville, Virginia, is a second-year veterinary student pursuing the equine track at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. During the summer of 2017, she traveled to France to participate in the Boehringer-Ingelheim Veterinary Scholars Program as one of three American students selected to participate in the European branch of the program. She plans to work in an equine ambulatory practice after graduation.

Lynch visited the top of the Tower of Philippe le Bon in Dijon, France. She is holding her little horse good-luck travel charm named "Myo."

You traveled to Lyon, France to conduct research this summer. How did this opportunity come about?

This summer, I participated in the Boehringer-Ingelheim Veterinary Scholars Program (BIVSP), which gives first- and second-year veterinary students the opportunity to participate in an intensive 10-12 week research program. Students perform their own research projects, receive mentorship from experts in the field, and are integrated into the daily life of the laboratory. At the end of the summer, students travel to the National Veterinary Scholars Symposium to present their findings to student colleagues and veterinarians.

The BIVSP is mainly offered at veterinary schools in the United States, but there is a European branch that promotes exchange between AVMA-accredited American, French, and Dutch veterinary schools, which caught my attention and eventually led me to apply for a 10-week research internship in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alps department in France. The program matches selected students with research topics and even offers a stipend to cover airfare, living, and travel expenses while abroad. I was one of three American students selected to participate in the European schools’ BIVSP.

What were your hopes for this experience?

Lynch presented her research findings at the National Veterinary Scholars Symposium held in Bethesda, Maryland.

There were a lot of things I hoped to get out of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. On a professional level, I was excited to have found a research project that directly addressed an important topic in equine medicine: the surveillance, detection, and treatment of tick-borne diseases in horses. I would be performing DNA extraction and qPCR on ticks collected on horses in a tick-heavy area of the country. As a student without a strong research background, I knew I would likely learn new skills and, of course, be able to add research and presentation experiences to my resume.

On a personal level, I have had a longstanding relationship with France. My undergraduate degree was a dual French/History major and my original plan was to pursue a PhD in French history, but I realized that I did not want to work in academia and thus changed my career path. I realized that I wanted to be an equine veterinarian and I made the decision to put my French interests aside, so I could focus exclusively on veterinary medicine. I still felt drawn to the French culture, and this exchange program was an opportunity to unite my veterinary education with my abiding Francophilia.

Tell us about your experience in France. How did you spend your time?

Lynch's research focused on detecting tick-borne pathogens in ticks, which were collected on horses in southern France.

I learned so much during my 10 weeks abroad. I spent countless hours honing my language skills, whether working in the Animal Epidemiology laboratory unit where my project was based, or over delicious work lunches with my French coworkers where we exchanged views on diverse topics like French versus American politics, veterinary education around the world, and my insatiable appetite for French cheese. I gained a functional knowledge of common microbiology laboratory techniques and had an entertaining time trying to translate what I had learned into English for my internship presentation. I took advantage of ride-sharing opportunities and traveled around the country on weekends, meeting other students and trying to explain how a future horse vet from the US had ended up in Europe.

What were the highlights of your trip?

Two experiences in particular stand out in my mind. I attended a conference in Toulouse, France with the two other American students participating in the BIVSP and we had a magnificent time exploring the city. Toulouse, known as “la ville en rose” or “the pink city,” for the color of its brick buildings, is in southwestern France near the Spanish border, and it has a unique atmosphere that is young, colorful and joyful. We concluded our stay watching the moonrise over the Garonne river and talking late into the night.

I was also fortunate enough to spend two weeks living with a coworker and her family in a village called St. Bonnet-près-Riom. With less than two thousand inhabitants, the main form of entertainment is visiting with neighbors, with midweek dinner parties lasting from mid-evening until the wee hours of the next morning. My last night there coincided with a village-wide exposition of local dancing and foods, including fortified wine and an incomparable cheese and potato dish called aligot, cooked in massive vats over an open fire. My coworker’s generosity in housing me underscores the kindness and friendship that I experienced during my entire trip abroad. The French could not have been more welcoming and I’ll always cherish the connections I made during my summer there.

Clermont-Ferrand, France
The moon over La Garonne river in Toulouse, France.

Any specific take-aways from your experience?

Of course, no experience worth having is without its challenges, and this goes doubly for life in a foreign country. I experienced difficulty in opening a French bank account and finding affordable housing. However, both of these challenges were manageable thanks to my laboratory supervisor and coworkers, who helped me and reassured me that it all would be well in the end, which it was. I also struggled at times with the physical and temporal distance between France and the US, but I stayed closely connected to my friends and family using social media and communication apps. I was very grateful to have kind, reliable people to look after my pets while I was gone, which was a huge relief, although I still missed them terribly.

My perspective was definitely broadened by my research experiences. I really enjoyed meeting vet students from around the world while I was in France, and then coming home to present at the National Veterinary Scholars Symposium, which allowed me to meet vet students in the US who are doing nuanced, groundbreaking research. While I still see myself working as a field veterinarian, I have a new appreciation for what research can look like and who can be a researcher in veterinary medicine.

During my first year of vet school I sometimes struggled to keep my dreams in sight during seemingly endless weeks of attending classes, studying, and taking exams. Going to a different country for 10 weeks helped me regain my sense of wonder and reminded me that after vet school, there is a whole world of science and medicine, colleagues and adventures waiting for us. As author Terry Pratchett once put it, “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors.”

Clermont-Ferrand, France
Lynch's travels took her to the Clermont-Ferrand, France, a university city in central France, bordered by the volcanic Chaîne des Puys mountains.